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Sunshine

Michael Pollan's outrageously informative book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, draws a beautifully simple line from the sun to the food on our table. It is the sun's energy, through photosynthesis ( what a revealing word) which allows plants to prosper and in turn fill our bellies with grains and salads and fruits and vegetables. The sun is pure energy.

Green plants have evolved to capture that energy and we are beneficiaries. Of course the sun is no more vital to the process than any of the other elements like the complex chemical reactions in the plants and soil. But the sun somehow seems more vital and I think that is because it is so big and omnipresent (even when it's down, it is the sun's light that bounces off the moon and we are almost always looking forward to the sunrise.) There is a not so evident parallel between photosynthesis and the sun's role in architectural design where vital is the operative term again. Yet, it is somewhat surprising that we don't give this life giving orb more attention when it comes to today's architectural design. I find in our architectural practice, that the sun is sometimes mentioned by clients but rarely given its proper prominence in the design process. I think this is due to two factors. First, I think we tend to take it for granted (and perhaps clients presume that the architect will properly fold this factor into the formula) and second, many clients don't consider the complexity of the sun or if they do, they shy away from the complexity. We tend to think of the sun as sort of on and off. If we skip past the first issue and engage the complexity we find a not so daunting set of variables. And if we take some time to understand how the sun works and put this knowledge in the context of building design we find we can have a powerful positive impact on the quality of the space we create and the comfort therein.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west - well, not really. Depending on the distance above or below the equator and the time of year, the sun actually rises roughly east and sets roughly west. The actual location along the horizon changes perceptively from day to day throughout the year. The height to which the sun rises also changes and thus there is a critical variable of the angle of sunlight. The mechanics of these variations are not too difficult to comprehend once one recognizes that the sun doesn't move at all - we're doing all the moving; spinning both around earth's tilted axis and elliptically around the orb itself. Ancient civilizations (and I bet the uncivilized too) understood the sun's behavior well and structured belief systems around its patterns - aspects of which (the equinox and solstices) linger today. Their understanding was experiential not scientific and I think the best way to understand this solar behavior is fundamentally by experience or more simply, observation. Through some powerful but user friendly Google applications, it is quite easy today to model the sun's behavior at any given time for any given place. But no immersion in theory, or computer visualization can substitute for actually sitting in the same place at varying times during the day and during the year to actually experience the sun. In October at 10 am the sun peaks just above the waterfall (or antenna, or apple tree, etc.) but in May it has reached that level well to the right of the waterfall and much earlier so that by 10am it sits high in the sky and now well to the left of the marker. Observe it again and again, choosing fixed markers like sunrise and sunset - draw a line representing the horizon, note the markers and then create a graph of height (approximate) on the left vertical axis and time of day along the bottom horizontal axis, then notate each observation as a dated dot in the sky. The resulting rhythm will become beautifully evident... and useful.

I can't tell you how many times a homeowner or office worker complains about the blinding, roasting sun that pours into their western facing windows in the afternoon or the piercing winter rays that accompany the morning coffee. Orientation to the sun is architecture 101, and it has been entirely lost to the primacy of street grids, zoning restrictions and knee jerk reliance on established patterns of behavior and layout. If you knew before you built your house that you were going to get cooked, your furniture and flooring faded, and your air conditioning bill padded for seven months of the year you might reconsider the purchase of that big wall of windows upgrade. That bank of floor to ceiling showroom glass gives everyone an incredible view of your snazzy product except for the forty percent of the day the blinds are down so your employees can see their computers and put away their sunglasses. That frigid north wind chews right through the insulated glass on the north face, sucking the heat out of the room, a room which never enjoys a ray of warming sunlight. Each of these conditions and many like them contribute to discomfort and inefficiency on a daily basis in homes and workplaces throughout the industrial world. But these extremes can be avoided if not altogether eliminated by understanding both the behavior of the sun in any given place, and the strategies that take advantage of the sun's benefits (light and heat) while controlling the sun's liabilities (not surprisingly, light and heat.) It is, like much in nature, a balancing act but this time there are many plates to keep spinning. To the extent the sun's behavior is fixed, it is only the orientation of the structure and its translucency (really it's energy absorbtiveness) that come under our control. Of course we have to consider the cascade of other factors that influence orientation and translucency. And it matters what we are trying to do in the space. As I have noted before, each of the many variables in design must be prioritized and weighed and thus we cannot simply design solely to balance the effects of the sun. But we shouldn't, as I contend we all too often do now, dismiss or diminish the sun as a critical factor in the formula. In the next post, I'll present both a residential and a commercial architectural design case study.